Love all creation. The whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, and every ray of light. [Dostoevsky]
Particularity is not an often used word. But it is one which has recently come into my awareness, and with a little reflection, has begun offering green shoots of hope in a world overrun by the global, the universal, and the general. The disconnection we experience as a result has at root, I believe, everything to do with a loss of intimate relationship with the particular.
And its use is not new. Christian mystics in the middle ages held particularity in high regard, but in the world following the reformation, in what might be termed the Modern Era, its use was lost. And this loss is felt keenly at present, especially amongst those who view themselves as moving beyond modernity.
To introduce the problem, let us consider the way that this modern era has given us the notion of “Objectivity” as a way of knowing. Or more specifically, how it has created the the myth of Scientific Objectivity as the prime way of knowing. While the Age of Reason has gifted us with this, it has also come with a price. It’s a good thing to think big, think clearly, and think impartially, and in terms of a whole.
But the price is that Objectivity has become a pernicious myth, which is not only self-contradictory, but has served to eliminate other ways of knowing. In brief, it is contradictory because it cannot escape its own gravity: the belief that the objective is a superior (or the only) way of knowing what is true, is in itself a subjective belief.
The downside of this myth is that other approaches to truth, the personal, the emotional, the traditional, the individual or imaginative for example, are sidelined, if not vilified. Where we apply this thinking to theology, “correct” ways of biblical interpretation (almost always handed to us from an authority above), create heretical no-go areas and taboos within communities, which leave little space for questioning, doubt, or personal exploration. Inevitably, at time of crisis, individuals who cannot in good conscience “tow the line” are given an ultimatum : Our way, or the highway. This is usually in the name of a larger truth, to which the subtleties of the individual and their particular circumstances must submit.
Put another way, the particular has, under the modern consensus, been ousted by the general. The individual by the prevailing orthodoxy, the creative by the correct, and the emerging by the entrenched. Take away the particular and you are left with knowledge in place of wisdom.
However, the crisis of the particular vs. the general ranges far wider than just epistemology, the problem of knowing. It is an intrinsic part of our culture and worldview at this time of globalisation.
In the “Global village”, the economics of globalization causes local economies to collapse and forces communities into slavish dependence on corporations and their profit based rationale. The age old connectedness to place disintegrates, workers are made unwilling migrants, and families are broken apart.
The market outcomes of this approach to economics produces narrowed perspectives, and drone-like conformity, as those in control of the “means of production” realise that the true capital of this economy is no longer goods, nor it it services, but brands, and their attendant dreams.
As an illustration, consumerism has in 50 years turned the term “cool” on its head. In the 1950’s to be cool was to stand out from the crowd, being original and authentic, but now it means fitting neatly into a marketeering category; “You have an iPod, cool.”
Furthermore, the ubiquitous – superabundance leading to overconsumption – has gained dominance over the special. When everything is special, well then, nothing is special. When Marilyn is replicated, is she still Marilyn? And the same trend is to be seen in modern approaches to healing. The Panacea (one size fixes all medicine) is valued over customized solutions. For example, antibiotics – carpet bombing of bacterial invaders – is the standard approach while the homeopathic is often dismissed as quackery, possibly precisely because it targets the very particularity of a malady, taking a wide range of factors into its diagnosis.
Technologically enabled connectedness is once again a two edged sword. That twitter feed means I am part of a churning groupmind, in real time, but it also means my retention of the actual memes passing through is reduced to almost zero. The “Virtual” as in “Virtual Reality” has gained the ascendancy over actual (true) reality. In fact, VR is one of the most cynically ironic concepts to date. As we strive for the most realistic game ever, we are forgetting: even the virtualist reality is utter fantasy. This confusion is by now deeply part of our generation.
What these things (objectivity, globalization, virtuality) point to is the loss of the particular. In objectivity, the external, the universal and the general, drive out the internal and the specific. The Global devours the local, and the virtual displaces our time-and-space bound perspectives.
Theologically, the same pattern is apparent. While we as Christians believe in a future with God, and in a New Creation, these aspects of transcendence have gained dominance over a relationship with God in the present, and in terms of our particular contexts. Many of us look to a future, heavenly dispensation, or another, better place, while we ignore the Creation already surrounding us in all its splendor, and yes, its fallenness.
It is only human to see the greener hills of another time, another place, and for some the sufferings of the world are all but too much to bear. But at the same time when the heavenly ousts the earthly and the eternal the temporal and timebound, we are in danger of missing perhaps the central truth of the gospel: Incarnation.
Incarnation means to become flesh, to be clothed in matter, to be birthed into time. While I would contest that we are born innately sinful in the Augustinian or Calvinist sense, it certainly means we are birthed into a world of sin. But far from this besmirching Gods purposes, it shows God in Christ to be ultimately humble: for it says,
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. [Phil 2:6]
This is the wonder of Incarnation, how the Creator shows such astonishing willingness to affirm this creation regardless of its imperfection. And Jesus himself promised, “the very hairs of your head are all numbered”. Taking his example then, should we not show our devotion to such a Creator via, and not in disdain for, this infinitely particular Creation?
In his book “Spaces for the sacred”, Phillip Sheldrake observes,
“The problem with the western culture of ‘modernity’ which has dominated our thinking for the last couple of hundred years, is that its impulse is to stress the universal rather than the particular or vernacular, the anonymous or disengaged rather than the personal.” [Spaces for the sacred, p 22]
Sheldrake looks to the medieval intellectual John Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308 ) for insight. Scotus was a member of the Franciscan order, so it was under the influence of St Francis’ creation-centric spirituality that he operated. This influence is key; for Francis’ vision of the sanctity of all creation was in many ways diametrically opposed to that of the mother church. And in his memory, Gerard Manley Hopkins fittingly observes, “this air I gather and release he lived on: these weeds and waters, these walls are what He haunted.” [“Duns Scotus’s Oxford”]
Sheldrake explains how Scotus rejected Thomas Aquinas’s neo-platonic distinction between a things essence and it’s existance. In Scotus’s view, a things essence and its existence were not separate. He coined the term “Haecceity” to describe how things have value as particular things, not merely as instances of an ideal form.
Haecceity (from the Latin haecceitas, which translates as “thisness”) is a term from medieval philosophy first coined by Duns Scotus which denotes the discrete qualities, properties or characteristics of a thing which make it a particular thing. Haecceity is a person or object’s “thisness”. [wikipedia]
Our crisis, I believe, is a crisis of thisness. We have lost our anchor to history and the now, the here, as the place where we can engage the sacred. Sheldrake shocks us out of our blithe contentedness with postmodern “space” – the disembodied and the generic over concrete “place”:
Ultimate truth must paradoxically be sought through contingent times and places. These have the capacity to speak sacramentally, beyond themselves, of God’s presence and promise. What we sometimes refer to as the ‘scandal of particularity’, that God in Christ incarnated within what is bounded and limited, is a guarantee that every particular place is a point of access to the place of God. [Spaces for the sacred, p 66]
One way to remedy this state of affairs, then, is a re-engagement with Ritual and Liturgy. I am aware that my perspectives here are largely those of the protestant, for other forms of faith – the Catholic and Orthodox – might not have quite such an issue, rooted as they are in calendars, sacred places, and specific cultures. (Interestingly though, in a paradox of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the word “Catholic” come from the Greek ‘καθολικός’ / ‘katholikos’, meaning “in general”, implying the very universalism I am arguing against.)
As protestants are aware, Ritual has not been overtly fostered after the Reformation. Of course, being creatures of habit, we all create, engage, and reinforce them despite our theoretical statements to the contrary.
So to begin to imaginatively create a new approach to the sacred, to worship and to life, is one of the tasks before this emergent generation. There are many traditions from which we can learn, both from within and outside of what Christianity has to offer.
I believe the challenge for us is a challenge of Incarnation, in which we take seriously what God takes seriously – time, space and matter.
It is a challenge of sacrelization, in which we boldly declare all of life to be sacred. But at the same time, that certain times, places, objects and practices, can be imbued with this universal sanctity in a special way.
And it is a challenge of thisness: where the objective, the universal, the general, the ubiquitous, the ideal, the generic, the global, the virtual and the standard, are brought into check by a re-engagement with particularity.
Phillips Sheldrake’s hope bears repeating: that “every particular place is a point of access to the place of God”.